etchasketchathon

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The first thing you must do is go upstairs to see the hand-coloured etchings in the series called Etchasketchathon. Walk straight to the picture of the zombie clown shaking hands with the little boy. Look at the burning cottage. Black skeletal rafters, all that survives of the roof, are seen against soft red-and-pink fire. The effect is as tender as a watercolour, as shocking as the blazing village in Rubens’ The Consequences of War. The Chapman brothers are back.

The last time I saw a roof wasted like that was when I watched the last embers of the Saatchi fire. The Chapmans’ big work, Hell, was destroyed, and they seemed remarkably blasé. This exhibition explains why. Like the Renaissance Countess of Forli – who, when the besiegers of her castle threatened to kill her children, stood on the battlements, lifted her skirts and said, “Look, I’ve got the equipment to make more” – the Chapmans are not easy to defeat. Unusually in contemporary art, they have this thing called talent.

more fromk The Guardian here.

nicolas carone

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It was not to be expected that a great many people in the New York art world would recognize the name of the American painter Nicolas Carone, whose works on paper were recently the subject of a very engaging exhibition at the Lohin Geduld Gallery in Chelsea. Mr. Carone is now 88 years old, and his work has not been exhibited here since the 1960’s. Yet in his heyday, which preceded the emergence of the Pop and Minimalist movements, he was a greatly admired figure in the ranks of American modernists—a representational painter schooled in the aesthetic innovations of Hofmann, Pollock and de Kooning. He belongs to a generation that had to work its way through the challenges of Abstract Expressionism before it could return to figuration with a renewed perspective. In that endeavor, Mr. Carone’s greatest asset was always his draftsmanship: drawing that’s classical in spirit, yet radically modernist in the expressive liberties it brings to his depiction of the most classical subject of all, the nude female figure.

more from Hilton Kramer at the NY Observer here.

A Self-Help Book of Science

From American Scientist:

Honey_1 The Velocity of Honey’s 24 chapters are short meditations on questions that are probably never going to make the cover of Science or Nature, such as why toast falls butter side down and why time seems to speed up as we grow older. You might call them crossword puzzles for the scientifically minded—they offer a mental workout for its own sake but also soothe and amuse. In fact, author Jay Ingram calls The Velocity of Honey “a self-help book.” Its essays “reduce stress,” he says, and offer “a brief interruption in the ridiculous rush of life.” Ingram, who hosts the Discovery Channel’s science program Daily Planet, says he picked the topics for their appeal—adding with characteristic self-irony that this means their appeal to him. Somehow, he says, that turned out to mean there is a lot of physics and psychology and not much in between. (Ingram himself has a master’s degree in microbiology from the University of Toronto.)

But the greatest attraction of The Velocity of Honey is Ingram’s intelligent but gentle, even self-deprecating, personality. Maybe I’m getting old, but I”m increasingly reluctant to buy a book by a brash young man who wants to buttonhole me and convince me that science is dead or everything bad is good for me. I’d rather spend the time with someone who asks me with a twinkle in his eye whether I’d venture to guess why toast always falls butter side down.

More here.

Benazir may `finally return soon´

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From despardes.com:

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) workers are reportedly active  planning Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan from self-exile. A party meeting is scheduled in London on November 27, and topmost on the agenda is BB’s return, says a reliable source who chose to remain anonymous. Asked when she may return, the source told DesPardes.com “it could be as early as on or about January 5, 2006 – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s birthday or sometime in summer.” According to the source, Benazir’s chances of being “relieved” as a party to the Swiss Case which is scheduled for hearing on November 25 are very high. Expecting the case outcome to be “in her favor”, Peoples’ Party leadership and workers have scheduled a high level  meeting in London two days thereafter “so they can discuss BBs return” the source added. Ms Benazir Bhutto will appear before a Swiss magistrate on November 24 and 25 to assist in the inquiry triggered by allegations of kickbacks and money laundering.

General Musharraf has time and again said that Benazir Bhutto was most welcome to come back to Pakistan after receiving “a clean chit” from the Swiss court even though she will be still barred from contesting for third premiership.

More here.

November 22, 2005

The Green Helmets of Darfur

Samantha Power in The New Yorker:

For the past two and a half years, the Arab-dominated government of Sudan has teamed up with sword-wielding marauders on horses and camels, known as janjaweed, to butcher, rape, and expel non-Arabs living in the western region of Darfur. In May of 2004, the United States, Europe, and Africa settled on an imperfect solution for stabilizing the region: send in the African Union. The A.U. accordingly dispatched sixty unarmed observers and three hundred “green helmet” soldiers to monitor a ceasefire between the government and the non-Arab rebels who were fighting it.

What followed was a textbook example of “mission creep.” The ceasefire collapsed, the Sudanese Air Force and the janjaweed continued their deadly raids, thousands more non-Arabs were killed, and the rebels began to splinter into rivalrous groups.

More here.

The Martini

Sean Carrol at Cosmic Variance:

Martini1_medThe martini’s perfection is deceptive because of its near-inevitability. Every aspect of the cocktail manifests its individual degree of perfection, so we are hardly surprised (that is, not as much as we should be) when it all comes together so elegantly. Gin, originating in the Low Countries and elevated to iconic status in Britain, forms the foundation of this quintessentially American drink. The basic white grain spirit is enlivened by the slightly exotic flavors of juniper and other botanicals. It’s everything you want in a foundation: solid and agreeable, perfectly transparent without being empty or boring. Dry vermouth, a fortified wine that is quite acceptable as a separate aperitif, but only reaches toward divinity in its role as a secondary ingredient against the gin. And the olives, suggesting a touch of the Eastern Mediterranean, adding a worldly spiciness and lush green roundness to the austerity of the cocktail.

More here.

JONATHAN MILLER’S BRIEF HISTORY OF DISBELIEF

Jonathan_miller_lead“In this first ever television history of disbelief, Jonathan Miller goes on a journey exploring the origins of his own lack of belief and uncovering the hidden story of atheism.”

From the BBC:

Shadows of Doubt
BBC Two Monday 31 October 2005 7pm-8pm
Jonathan Miller visits the absent Twin Towers to consider the religious implications of 9/11 and meets Arthur Miller and the philosopher Colin McGinn. He searches for evidence of the first ‘unbelievers’ in Ancient Greece and examines some of the modern theories around why people have always tended to believe in mythology and magic.

Noughts and Crosses
BBC Two Monday 7 November 7pm-8pm
With the domination of Christianity from 500 AD, Jonathan Miller wonders how disbelief began to re-emerge in the 15th and 16th centuries. He discovers that division within the Church played a more powerful role than the scientific discoveries of the period. He also visits Paris, the home of the 18th century atheist, Baron D’Holbach, and shows how politically dangerous it was to undermine the religious faith of the masses.

The Final Hour
BBC Two Monday 14 November 7pm-8pm TBC
The history of disbelief continues with the ideas of self-taught philosopher Thomas Paine, the revolutionary studies of geology and the evolutionary theories of Darwin. Jonathan Miller looks at the Freudian view that religion is a ‘thought disorder’. He also examines his motivation behind making the series touching on the issues of death and the religious fanaticism of the 21st century.

More here.  [Thanks to Akeel Bilgrami.]

mao more than ever

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Andrew Nathan at the London Review of Books looks at recent biographies of Mao and the continuing changes and developments of Mao studies inside and outside China.

Of course Mao deserves harsh moral judgment. Too many previous accounts of his life, awed by his achievements, have overlooked their human cost. But this portrayal impedes serious moral judgment. A caricature Mao is too easy a solution to the puzzle of modern China’s history. What we learn from this history is that there are some very bad people: it would have been more useful, as well as closer to the truth, had we been shown that there are some very bad institutions and some very bad situations, both of which can make bad people even worse, and give them the incentive and the opportunity to do terrible things.

Chang and Halliday’s white-hot fury no doubt represents the unpublished and anonymous Chinese sources that they have used. More authentically than the officially licensed propaganda, these as yet subterranean opinions reflect the current evaluation of Mao within the Party as well as outside. This book can thus be read as a report on the crumbling of the Mao myth, as well as a bombshell aimed at destroying that myth. That the Chinese are getting rid of their Mao myth is welcome. But more needs to take its place than a simple personalisation of blame.

paul berman on the french

A major piece from Paul Berman in The New Republic analyzing the intellectual condition, as it were, among the French, and making a number of claims about the rise of a new anti-anti-Americanism.

Anyone who visits Berlin will recognize instantly that Germany is a nation that has suffered stupendous and unbearable defeats–a nation that has been reduced to rubble repeatedly by events, even if the Germans have themselves to blame for some of those events. A visitor to France will come away with no such impression. Rubble, in France? And yet it may be that France, too, is a nation covered with scars–a wounded nation, different from Germany only in France’s gallant insistence that it is not a wounded nation. I turn the pages of Roger’s history and the other books, and I contemplate Glucksmann’s observations about the hatred that arises from a revulsion at one’s own weakness, and it occurs to me that, instead of rubble, which the Germans have aplenty, the French possess the very remarkable literature that Roger and the others describe. Not exactly rubble, but a kind of wreckage–the literature of a wounded culture, expressing more than two hundred years of conscious and unconscious injury.

But I don’t want to go too far with this observation. France’s grandeur is not, after all, entirely an illusion. It may even be a sign of French grandeur today that, at a moment when a more-or-less systematic anti-Americanism has blossomed from right to left all over the world, France has, ever so quietly, made itself the international home of a new literature of anti-anti-Americanism–this new and radical and brilliant literature that has not yet worked a powerful effect around the world, or even on conventional opinion in France, and is certainly not going to produce a sudden shift in outlook, but which, even so, might well turn out to be, in years to come, an event in the history of ideas. A flash of self-awareness. The stirring of an eyeball, breaking through sleep. A new realization, just beginning to awaken.

elizabeth murray, shape

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“Shape” as an issue for painting was the demon spawn of the critical program initiated by Greenberg and elaborated by Michael Fried. Most notoriously, Frank Stella’s manipulation of the shape of the physical support in his work of the ’60s was seen as an inevitable evolutionary step in the reduction of painting to its own medium-specific essence, and perhaps also as a way out of the cul-de-sac of graphic decorativism. In Stella’s case this reasoning eventually resulted in weird objects that were difficult to accept as either radical or profound, but younger artists of a non-Greenbergian bent surprisingly found rich potential in this train of thought. In the late ’60s Mangold, Murray’s contemporary in age but forerunner on the curve of artistic self-realization, began exploring the reciprocity, implied by Stella’s earlier forays, between a shaped support and the marks on its surface. Throughout the ’70s and beyond, Mel Bochner, Dorothea Rockburne, and Richard Tuttle worked with shape in their pictorial investigations of thought’s relationship to material, and Ron Gorchov made truculent and repetitive canvases with round corners and a surface curved in two directions like a saddle. Always present in the minds of Murray’s generation of painters was the example of Ralph Humphrey, a currently underestimated figure who began a series of ethereal surfboard-shaped paintings in 1970 and who continued to develop his extremely specific supporting structures until his death twenty years later.

more from Artforum here.

This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis

From The New York Times:

Brain_7 Hypnosis, with its long and checkered history in medicine and entertainment, is receiving some new respect from neuroscientists. Recent brain studies of people who are susceptible to suggestion indicate that when they act on the suggestions their brains show profound changes in how they process information. The suggestions, researchers report, literally change what people see, hear, feel and believe to be true.

Brain scans show that the control mechanisms for deciding what to do in the face of conflict become uncoupled when people are hypnotized.

More here.

The Trials of Life: Intelligent Design

From Scientific American:Penguin_1

On September 13, the New York Times ran an article that discussed how the documentary March of the Penguins was a big hit among some groups because of the lessons it imparted. A reviewer in World Magazine thought that the fact that any fragile penguin egg survived the Antarctic climate made a “strong case for intelligent design.” Conservative commentator Michael Medved thought the movie “passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing.”

Penguins are not people, despite their natty appearance and upright ambulation. Their traditional norms include waddling around naked and regurgitating the kids’ lunch. But it would be as absurd to castigate them for those activities as it is to congratulate them for their monogamy. Besides, the movie clearly notes that the penguins are seasonally monogamous–like other movie stars usually reviled by moralists, the penguins take a different mate each year. And there are problems with them as evidence of intelligent design. While caring for the egg, the penguins balance it on their feet against their warm bodies; if the egg slips to the ground for even a few seconds, it freezes and cracks open. A truly intelligent design might have included internal development, or thicker eggshells, or Miami. Finally, penguin parents take turns walking 70 miles to the sea for takeout meals. The birds have to walk.

From tribulations to trials. On September 26, I sat in a federal courtroom in Harrisburg, Pa., where a lawyer said for almost certainly the first time ever, “Can we have the bacterial flagellum, please?”

More here.

MySpace and culture of fear

Danah Boyd writes about how youth culture is treated in the US and examines the connections between Columbine and banning MySpace:

“I’m tired of mass media perpetuating a culture of fear under the scapegoat of informing the public. Nowhere is this more apparent than how they discuss youth culture and use scare tactics to warn parents of the safety risks about the Internet. The choice to perpetually report on the possibility or rare occurrence of kidnapping / stalking / violence because of Internet sociability is not a neutral position – it is a position of power that the media chooses to take because it’s a story that sells. There’s something innately human about rubbernecking, about looking for fears, about reveling in the possibilities of demise. Mainstream media capitalizes on this, manipulating the public and magnifying the culture of fear. It sells horror films and it sells newspapers.

…The effects are devastating. Ever wonder why young people don’t vote? Why should they? They’ve been told for so damn long that their voices don’t matter, have been the victims of an oppressive regime. What is motivating about that? How do you learn to use your voice to change power when you’ve been surveilled and controlled for so long, when you’ve made an art out of subversive engagement with peers? When you’ve been put on drugs like Strattera that control your behavior to the point of utter obedience? “

More Here

November 21, 2005

Monday Musing: Reexamining Religion

Pervez Hoodbhoy is a well-known physicist who teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is also well-known for his frequent and intelligent interventions in politics. In an article entitled Miracles, Wars, and Politics he writes:

PervezOn the morning of the first Gulf War (1991), having just heard the news of the US attack on Baghdad, I walked into my office in the physics department in a state of numbness and depression. Mass death and devastation would surely follow. I was dismayed, but not surprised, to discover my PhD student, a militant activist of the Jamaat-i-Islami’s student wing in Islamabad, in a state of euphoria. Islam’s victory, he said, is inevitable because God is on our side and the Americans cannot survive without alcohol and women. He reasoned that neither would be available in Iraq, and happily concluded that the Americans were doomed. Then he reverentially closed his eyes and thrice repeated “Inshallah” (if Allah so wills).

The utter annihilation of Saddam Hussein’s army by the Americans which soon followed, did little, of course, to attenuate this student’s convictions. (Also, it is mildly interesting that Muslim conceptions of heaven focus so much on precisely the easy availability of alcohol and women.) Constantly confronted by such attitudes, atheists such as myself are often driven to hair-pulling exasperation by the seeming irrationality of religious belief, and specifically its immunity to refutation by experience, logic, argument, or it seems, anything else. Professor Hoodbhoy goes on to note that:

In Pakistan today – where the bulk of the population has been through the Islamized education initiated by General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980’s – supernatural intervention is widely held responsible for natural calamities and diseases, car accidents and plane crashes, acquiring or losing personal wealth, success or failure in examinations, or determining matters of love and matrimony. In Pakistan no aircraft – whether of Pakistan International Airlines or a private carrier registered in Pakistan – can take off until appropriate prayers are recited. Wars certainly cannot be won without Allah’s help, but He has also been given the task of winning cricket matches for Pakistan.

Dawkins_7 And this state of affairs by no means obtains only in Islamic societies. It is more-or-less universal. Consider the following about the born-again-Christian-led United States: all polls about such subjects show that a great majority of Americans believe in miracles, angels, an afterlife where one will be reunited with one’s relatives and friends, and according to one recent poll, 96 percent believe in God. It is only in the rarefied air of elite academic institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences that one finds a majority of atheists and agnostics. And contrary to popular misconception, Europe is not much different. The reaction to this ubiquity of faith-based superstition, on the part of intellectuals, is best epitomized by Richard Dawkins’s frequent and witty expressions of indignant frustration with and attacks on religion. (He is not always choleric on this issue: one of the more tenderly moving things I have read is Dawkins’s letter to his 10 year-old dauStephen_1ghter Juliet, published in A Devil’s Chaplain as “Good and Bad Reasons for Believing.” If I ever have children, it will be required reading for them.) And I stand beside him in calling attention not only to the silliness of religious superstition, but to the misguidedly anodyne view repeatedly expressed by Stephen Jay Gould and others that religion and science do not clash and can peacefully coexist. They can do no such thing, and one has only to look at the recent court battles over Intelligent Design in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Delaware to see that (battles similar to the creationist ones Gould was bravely at the forefront of fighting while alive). But until recently, few scientists have put much effort into explaining the ubiquity of religious beliefs. If it is so irrational, then why is religious conviction so widespread?

BoyerpicToday, I would like to report the fascinating work on this question of two young scientists: Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist, and Paul Bloom, a psychologist. Traditional explanations of religious beliefs have tended to fall roughly into two categories: first, there is what might be called the “opiate of the masses” view. This claims that religion is a way of assuaging the pain and suffering of everyday life. Faced with injustice and an indifferent physical universe, people have invented scenarios which help them imagine rewards and punishments in an afterlife, and other ways of injecting meaning into a seemingly purposeless existence. And second, there is the category of explanation of religion which relies on the social benefits which accrue to a society which shares religious beliefs. In addition to providing group solidarity through ritual, these might include the acceptance of uniform moral codes, for instance. On this theory, religious beliefs are seen as memes that are particularly successful because they provide a survival advantage to the groups that hold them (maybe even simply by making people happier). As Pascal Boyer points out in his excellent book Religion Explained, in both cases it is assumed that reason is somehow corrupted or even suspended by the attractiveness (and benefits) of religious belief. [That’s Boyer on the right, above.]

Bloom_1There are problems with these views, and I will, again, just mention two: first, it is clear that people will not just believe anything that provides meaning or promotes social cohesion. There is a very limited type of belief that people are willing to accept, even in religion, and these explanations do not address this selectivity. For example, it would be very hard to convince people of a God who ceased to exist on Wednesdays [Boyer’s example]. The second problem, which has also been pointed out by Steven Pinker, is that both these types of explanation rely on showing that some advantage comes from believing in religion, but this is really a putting of the cart before the horse. We do not generally just believe a thing because having the belief might help us; we believe things that we think are true. If you are hungry, it may help you to believe that you just ate a huge meal, but you will not. As Bloom says in an article in this month’s Atlantic, “Heaven is a reassuring notion only insofar as people believe such a place exists; it is this belief that an adequate theory of religion has to explain in the first place.” [The picture is of Bloom.]

The new approach to explaining religion that Boyer and Bloom (and Scott Atran and Justin Barrett and Deborah Kelemen and others) represent does not see religious belief as a corruption of rationality, but rather as an over-extension of some of the very mental mechanisms that underlie and make rationality possible. In other words, rather than religion having emerged to serve a social or other purpose, in this view it is seen as an evolutionary accident. In particular, Bloom uses some developments in child psychology to shed light on the issue of religious beliefs, and it is these that I would like to focus on now. I cannot here go into the details of the experiments which demonstrate this, but it turns out that one of the things which seems hardwired (is not learned by experience) in young infants (before they can even speak), is the distinction between inanimate and animate objects. Infants are clearly able to distinguish physical things from objects which demonstrate intentionality and have psychological characteristics. In other words, things with minds. In Paul Bloom’s words, children are “natural-born dualists” (in the Cartesian sense). It is quite clear that the mental mechanisms that babies use to understand and predict how physical objects will behave are very distinct from the mechanisms they use to understand and predict how psychological agents will behave. This stark separation of the world into minds and non-minds is what, according to Bloom, makes it eventually possible for us to conceive of minds (or souls) without bodies. This explains beliefs in gods, spirits, an afterlife (we continue without bodies), etc. The other thing that babies are very good at, is ascriptions of intentionality. They are very good at reading desires and intentions in animate objects, and this is necessary for them to function socially. Indeed, they are so sensitive to this that they sometimes overshoot and even ascribe goals and desires to inanimate objects. And it is this tendency which eventually makes us animists and creationists.

Notice that while previously most people have proposed that we are dualists because we want to believe in an afterlife, this new approach turns that formulation around: we believe in an afterlife because we are born dualists. And we are born dualists to be able to make sense of a world which has two very different kind of entities in it (in terms of trying to predict what they will do): physical objects and things with minds. Bloom describes as interesting experiment in which children are told a story (with pictures) in which an alligator eats a mouse. The mouse has clearly died, and the children understand this. Bloom says:

The experimenters [then] asked the children a set of questions about the mouse’s biological functioning–such as “Now that the mouse is no longer alive, will he ever need to go to the bathroom? Do his ears still work? Does his brain still work?”–and about the mouse’s mental functioning, such as “Now that the mouse is no longer alive, is he still hungry? Is he thinking about the alligator? Does he still want to go home?”

As predicted, when asked about biological properties, the children appreciated the effects of death: no need for bathroom breaks; the ears don’t work, and neither does the brain. The mouse’s body is gone. But when asked about the psychological properties, more than half the children said that these would continue: the dead mouse can feel hunger, think thoughts, and have desires. The soul survives. And children believe this more than adults do, suggesting that although we have to learn which specific afterlife people in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation, a spirit world, and so on), the notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world.

While it is this natural dualism that makes us prone to belief in an afterlife, spirits, gods, and other supernatural entities, it is what Pascal Boyer has called a hypertrophied sense of social cognition which predisposes us to see evidence of purpose and design even when it does not exist. Bloom describes it this way:

…nascent creationist views are found in young children. Four-year olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions (“to go in the zoo”) and clouds (“for raining”). When asked to explain why a bunch of rocks are pointy, adults prefer a physical explanation, while children use a functional one, such as “so that animals can scratch on them when they get itchy.” And when asked about the origins of animals and people, children prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism–and belief in God–is bred in the bone.

As another example of attribution of causality to intentional agents where there are none, consider the widespread belief in witches. In an article entitled Why Is Religion Natural?, Pascal Boyer writes:

Witchcraft is important because it seems to provide an “explanation” for all sorts of events: many cases of illness or other misfortune are spontaneously interpreted as evidence for the witches’ actions. Witchcraft beliefs are only one manifestation of a phenomenon that is found in many human groups, the interpretation of misfortune as a consequence of envy. For another such situation, consider the widespread beliefs in an “evil eye,” a spell cast by envious people against whoever enjoys some good fortune or natural advantage. Witchcraft and evil eye notions do not really belong to the domain of religion, but they show that, religious agents or not, there is a tendency to focus on the possible reasons for some agents to cause misfortune, rather than on the processes whereby they could do it.

For these occurrences that largely escape control, people focus on the supernatural agents’ feelings and intentions. The ancestors were angry, the gods demanded a sacrifice, or the god is just cruel and playful. But there is more to that. The way these reasons are expressed is, in a great majority of cases, supported by our social exchange intuitions. People focus on an agent’s reasons for causing them harm, but note that these “reasons” always have to do with people’s interaction with the agents in question. People refused to follow God’s orders; they polluted a house against the ancestors’ prescriptions; they had more wealth or good fortune than their God-decreed fate allocated them; and so on. All this supports what anthropologists have been saying for a long time on the basis of evidence gathered in the most various cultural environments: Misfortune is generally interpreted in social terms. But this familiar conclusion implies that the evolved cognitive resources people bring to the understanding of interaction should be crucial to their construal of misfortune.

To state it one more time, the correct explanation for the ubiquity and stability of religious beliefs lies not in postulating rash abandonments of rationality for the gain of some social or mental benefit, but rather, such superstitious beliefs are firmly rooted in our ordinary mechanisms of cognitive functioning. In addition, these beliefs are parasitic upon mental systems which have evolved for non-religious functions, but which have similarities to religious concerns: for example, fear of invisible contaminants (religious rituals of washing), or moral intuitions and norms (religious commandments).

Obviously, to see this sort of naturalistic account of religious and other supernatural beliefs as an endorsement or defense of religion would be to commit a naturalistic fallacy of the worst sort. What Boyer, Bloom, et al have done is to point out a weakness in our cognitive apparatus, which is a by-product of the way our mental systems have evolved. This is analogous to the well-known systematic weaknesses that people show in thinking about probabilistic phenomena (shamelessly exploited in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, not to mention the highly deplorable state-run lotteries). Having discovered an accidental source of incorrect beliefs within ourselves, we must struggle against it, and be ever-vigilant when thinking about these sorts of issues.

Have a good week!

My other recent Monday Musings:
Posthumously Arrested for Assaulting Myself
Be the New Kinsey
General Relativity, Very Plainly
Regarding Regret
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Rocket Man
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President

Selected Minor Works: Taxonomy as a Guide to Morals

Justin E. H. Smith

There is a long tradition in philosophy, going back at least to Epicurus, of allowing examples drawn from the domain of sexuality to serve in the analysis of eating, and vice versa. Sometimes this amounts to sloppiness, but often one can gain insight. Consider the photographs of peaches or cherries that make their way onto the covers of books in the erotica genre. These might tromper l’oeil, for an instant, but when we see what the photo is actually of, we are inclined to think: how clever, that peach looks like a naked woman from behind. Yet publishers of erotic literature dare not attempt the same trick with a suitably ambiguous photograph of a goat’s haunches. An erotic experience caused by a cherry is a fundamentally different sort of experience than one caused by a goat. This difference might, on its own, lead one to think that, similarly, a culinary experience with a cherry and one with a goat are two very different things as well. It is also interesting to note that in poetry allusions to fruit work well as erotic metaphors, while mention of ‘meat’ in the same context would be not erotic, but pornographic.

But it is zoology, and not phenomenology, that informs the dietary rules of contemporary ethical eaters. Most vegetarians today seek to index their dietary rules to Linnaean taxonomy. A moment’s reflection will show this to be an odd project. To eat corn and mushrooms, but not beef and mussels, only because, as we inhabitants of the post-Linnaean world know, cows and marine invertebrates are grouped together in the kingdom “animalia,” whereas plantae and fungi are different kingdoms altogether, is, one might think, to put a bit too much faith in the ability of scientific taxonomy to reflect reality, and, what’s more, to serve as a guide to practice. When it comes to dietary decisions of this sort, surely folk taxonomy is a more reliable guide. The Karam of the New Guinea Highlands, to cite one of many examples available from the anthropological literature of kingdom-mixing in folk taxonomy, class certain mushrooms with animals, in virtue of the texture of their ‘meat’. nd what folk taxonomy tells us is that cows are more like humans than they are like scallops, and scallops are more like corn-on-the-cob than they are like cows– the intuitive appropriateness of the phrase ‘frutti di mari’ has, after all, survived three centuries of taxonomic precisification.

The relevant likeness, again, has nothing to do with arguments for or against moral status based on neurophysiological evidence. Rather, it has to do with the instruments and methods employed to kill the creature, the amount of blood spilled, and the sense of the relative specialness of the meal that results from this killing. Though the taxonomies are very different, in all cultures, in addition to the class of entities that cannot be killed and eaten under any circumstances –pets and people (at least the friendly ones, again, as we will see below), and usually negatively social creatures such as rats—, there appears to be a certain class of entities cordoned off from the rest, distinguished by the fact that members of this class cannot be casually killed and eaten. They can be killed and eaten, but this will require some kind of communal to-do by which their sociocosmic significance –or what we would call their ‘moral status’– is acknowledged.

We are led astray not just in trying to index ‘moral wrongness’ to the innate cognitive and sensitive capacities of the beings in question, but that we are led astray even in thinking that the question of what we are and are not to eat has much to do with ‘moral wrongness’ in the sense in which philosophers understand it. Rather, rules about what can be eaten, and under what circumstances –never social animals like pets or rats, sometimes large game, fruits and nuts more or less anytime—seem to involve a few basic, evolutionally ingrained, cross-cultural rules, and on top of these a good deal of culturally variable rules that nonetheless within the culture feel as inexorable as the basic ones. Eating, as the Epicureans suspected, thus parallels sexuality in significant ways—the mother-son incest taboo is universal, but whether sex with your second cousin, or your second wife, or outside of marriage, or during menstruation, is ‘morally wrong’ will differ from place to place. All of these practices are capable of being morally wrong, but only in the etymological sense of ‘moral’: pertaining to the practices of a group.

The classicist and philosopher G. E. R. Lloyd has argued in his Magic, Reason, and Experience (Cambridge, 1979), that often it is not just difficult but impossible to determine when, in ancient texts, some reference to “purification” or “cleansing” is meant in a medical, and when in a moral-religious, context. He notes that the ambiguity arises only because we ourselves are intent on separating the two usages, whereas the Greek writers themselves may not have seen any need to do so. He cites Mary Douglas’s work in a more general anthropological context, which shows convincingly that “notions of the ‘clean’ and the ‘dirty’ usually reflect fundamental assumptions concerning the natural, and the moral, order.” It would be useful to bear in mind the ease with which naturalistically understood rules about ‘what one does’ and moral proscriptions are elided, and not to assume that we are radically different from the ancient Greeks or the Lele of the Congo in this regard. And for us, as for other cultures, there are presuppositions about what one may fitly do with an object that serve to constitute our very concept of the object, and that these must precede any explication of our moral commitments vis-à-vis that object. On Douglas’s approach, the moral proscription against eating something would be nothing more than an ad hoc rationalization of the fact that some potential food item belongs to the class of things that are ‘not to be eaten’. Yet the tendency in philosophical discusssions of vegetarianism has been to presume that we can meaningfully distinguish between ‘hygienic’ and ‘moral’ considerations that might give form and meaning to a person’s vegetarianism, as though hygiene had nothing to do with morality, as though the pretheoretical perception of an entity’s belonging to the class of edibles or inedibles had nothing to do with the way we subsequently give reasons for why we eat the things we do and not others.

I do not know if meat-eating is something humans ‘ought’ to be doing. I suspect the answer to this question has more to do with primatology than with moral philosophy: are we the sort of primate that eats meat? And with anthropology: are there human cultures that class all of what zoology places under the heading ‘animalia’ under the heading ‘inedibles’? The unwillingness of people on either side of the debate to consider the question in these terms surely is not doing any animals any good.

Poetry and Culture

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

Benjamin Britten: Music and poetry, attendant muses at the grinding gears

Leonard Bernstein once said of Benjamin Britten that his music was ‘dark, there are gears grinding and not quite meshing . . . making great pain’. That seems true. Certainly, there is no transcendence in Britten, as there is in Elgar, for example. The Dream of Gerontius is a work of faith and Christian journeying, but Britten was having none of Cardinal Newman’s agenda. Nor is there that charged explosion of sensuality Elgar achieved with In The South, though the composer does let his hair down occasionally, as in the Four Cabaret Songs or the finale  of Spring Symphony. Even Elgar’s melancholy seems schooled in hopefulness by comparison with Britten. Britten is simply dark, and anxiety is close to the surface. Neither could Britten luxuriate, as Delius does, or glitter with  delight, like Walton. But what Britten does have, something those other composers do not have to same degree, is the most exquisite ear for poetry and the ability to set is superbly. To a very real degree, it is poetry that gets Britten through his dark nights of the soul.

Britten was lucky that one of his earliest friendships was with Auden, and, naturally enough, being with a poet of this stature couldn’t help but rub off on a sensitive and intelligent personality like Britten’s. There are many early settings of Auden, On This Island being one of the best known. Britten and Auden had a falling out later on, but I don’t think Britten ever forgot what he learnt from Auden about the intimacies possible when music and poetry work in harmony. True, Britten was rather scornful of Auden’s and Kallman’s text for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, but that scorn was based on a profound working knowledge of how to set dramatic texts for opera. Britten showed he could do it marvellously well in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The other opera librettos may not always be settings of poetry, but they are certainly poetic. When Peter Grimes sings ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades . . .’ it is certainly something poetic we are hearing. The fact that is dramatic too just goes to show how effective Britten’s settings could be when his imagination was fired by a suitable subject.

I was fortunate enough to once meet Britten at the 1970 Adelaide Festival. He was one of the first composers I started collecting on LP. People of a certain generation remember those Decca recordings with their texts in print size that made them easy to read, unlike today’s CD equivalents. Well, I was a particularly green student at the time, but I knew Britten had been interested in setting King Lear, and I asked him about that. There was an ominous silence, but I often think that would have been a more suitable final work for a composer of his temperament, rather than Death In Venice with its chilled ecstasies and gamelan playfulness. It’s one of those ‘what if’ questions we ask about artists we like. Fellini’s Mastorna project or Wagner’s proposed final symphonies also come to mind.

One of the first recordings I bought had Les Illuminations on it. I didn’t understand the full ramifications of the work at the time, but could feel Britten’s identification with the text. Somehow, music and text are integrated naturally, instinctively. You could say the same thing of all of Britten’s setting of poetry texts. There are no false notes. There is a real marriage of true minds, the muses of music and poetry meeting equally on Helicon, neither subsuming the other, each requiring the other’s succour.

The War Requiem is a real act of transfigurative creative feeling. There had been a kind of precursor when Mahler, in his Symphony No 8, set the Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus and then completed the work with the last part of Goethe’s Faust, but Britten was doing something more adventurous, at least from a literary viewpoint. Since Britten cannot find the transfigurative moment to redeem the deaths memorialised on the dedication page of the War Requiem, or fill Coventry cathedral with ‘Take me away’ chords out of Gerontius, he does something quite original. He inserts the poetry of Wilfred Owen throughout and, just when we might be expecting the summons to a higher cause, what we get is the sheer awfulness of war, the ‘pity of war’, the imagined reconciliation in hushed remonstrance in ‘Strange Meeting’. To think that this work was once regarded by a certain section of the musical avant-garde as the white elephant of British music speaks of their failure to react creatively to poetry in the way that Britten did so effectively in this work.

However, the composer pacifist still had to deal with his own violent demons, and poetry seems to be one of the ways he accommodated what must have seemed, in the wake of the Second World War with its apocalyptic severances, the failure of art to prevent the facts of the Holocaust and the boundless dead. Britten played with Menuhin at the end of the war for survivors of the concentration camps, and the memories he brought back from that time prompted the song cycle he composed not long after, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. The muscular confrontation with the fact of suffering brought forth a cycle in which Donne’s verse starkly counterpoises the music. The counterweight to this confrontational style is the calm and lucid settings of Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare in Nocturne, where Britten finds the kind of equipoise so often missing elsewhere. On the edge of sleep, or in the idea of sleep itself, the composer finds repose. To use Yeats’ words, the ceremony of innocence may be drowned (though not in most of the works written for children such as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), but the memory that one was once innocent—Britten reaches at that with all his yearning. You still wake to find the blood and pain of the world, but during the cycle one has been enchanted, a little. Some of Puck’s juice has been sprinkled in our eyes too. The moment passes, but the moment was beautiful. And one doesn’t forget that it was real. Britten has made it so. Poetry has helped the composer get there. Perhaps, essentially, Bernstein is wrong. The gears do mesh, because if they didn’t there would be no music, no memorability, no greatness of spirit, which there clearly is in these compositions.

Britten was not a parochial composer, for all the jokiness about ‘Addleborough’ (Aldeburgh). The languages set include French, Russian, German, Italian, American and British poets. His sensitivity encompasses Soutar and Hardy, Michelangelo and Jonson, nervous fibres reaching out for any memorable words to centre what seems, at heart, a certain pessimism. If one takes account of all the poetry settings Britten composed music for, and thinks of the literary imput from Crabbe, Melville, James and Mann, and others, then one really is prompted to consider Britten one of poetry’s, and language’s, most eloquent advocates. A composer as subtle and as various in his or her choice of texts, and the ability to set them as memorably as Britten: the muses were here in agreement, and they bestowed their graces liberally, even though darkness is clearly visible and any joy achieved is hard won.

November 20, 2005

How singing unlocks the brain

Jane Elliot writes for the BBC:

_41032360_whole_brain203 “As Bill Bundock’s Alzheimer’s progressed he became more and more locked into his own world.

He withdrew into himself and stopped communicating with his wife, Jean.

Jean said Bill lost his motivation, and his desire and ability to hold conversations, but all this changed when the couple started attending a local sing-song group, aimed especially for people with dementia.

Jean said Singing for the Brain had unlocked Bill’s communication block. “

Yes, Virginia

From The New York Times:Woolf1

IN January 1915, when Virginia Woolf was 33, she and her husband, Leonard, resolved to do three things: lease a house outside London; acquire a printing press; and buy a bulldog. As Julia Briggs recounts in her intelligent and well-researched new biography of Woolf, the couple never got the dog, but the creation of the Hogarth Press – named after Hogarth House, their new home – significantly influenced 20th-century literature. Purposely seeking out “work that might not otherwise get into print,” they published T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Woolf herself. Freed from commercial pressures, Woolf could now pursue her most “radically experimental” leanings, and in her formal innovation, she became a pioneer of modernism.

Today, some of Woolf’s books seem stylized, at times experimental for the sake of being experimental – “The Waves” comes to mind – but her most widely read and admired works, including “To the Lighthouse” and “Mrs. Dalloway,” are read and admired for a reason. Briggs’s subtitle pays tribute to Woolf’s exploration of the inner life, her ability to capture the nebulousness of the human experience as it plays out second by second and translate it, in thrillingly nuanced ways, into words.

More here.

George W’s nemesis

From The Guardian:Jokes_final_1

Ever found yourself between a rock and a hard place? You loathe George Bush, for example, yet feel queasy looking to Michael Moore or George Galloway as your lodestar. You want to demonstrate against the war, or just against the handling of its fallout, but aren’t sure you want to march under the same banner as Bolsheviks for the Republic of Palestine.

If this strikes a chord, Al Franken is for you. As a hammer of Bush, Karl Rove and Co, the liberal comedian and nemesis of the right-wing shock-jocks has all of Moore’s wit and audacity and perhaps a touch of his ego, but avoids sounding like a propagandist. His latest book, subtle, laugh-or-cry-out-loud and ultimately devastating, is Michael Moore without the exclamation marks.

More here.